The US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan arrived back in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Thousands of crew from the Nimitz-class, nuclear-powered supercarrier and other warships in its strike group are ready to hit their favorite watering holes in the city’s Central and Wan Chai districts.

At noon the imposing, 130,000-ton Ronald Reagan, carrying rows of fighters and other aircraft on its flight deck, was anchored south of Tsing Yi island, west of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor.

Three other vessels in the carrier strike group – guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville as well as two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers Benfold and Curtis Wilbur – are berthed in more central locations in the city, including a cruise ship terminal next door to a bustling shopping mall along the Kowloon peninsula waterfront.

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A file photo shows the Ronald Reagan moored in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor during its port call in October 2017. Photo: Xinhua
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Warplanes sit on the deck of the Ronald Reagan as it pulls into Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photo: Handout
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Rear Admiral Karl Thomas, commander of the Ronald Reagan battle group, speaks to members of the media on the carrier’s flight deck. Photo: RTHK
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US and Hong Kong flags are seen inside the hangar of the Ronald Reagan. Photo: EPA

However, no public tours of the vessels or community outreach programs will take place during this visit, according to the US Consulate-General in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Civil Aviation Department has gazetted a temporary restricted flying zone until November 25, banning all aircraft including drones from entering the zone.

The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan, which includes the Ronald Reagan as its flagship, is the main force for the US’s strategic containment of China.

Earlier this month the Ronald Reagan wrapped up a 13-day US-Japan naval drill in the Philippine Sea. It then joined forces with another US carrier group, the John C Stennis, last Wednesday for an operation on the edge of the South China Sea.

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The Ronald Reagan carrier entering Hong Kong waters on Wednesday morning. Photo: Weibo
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US seamen standing on the flight deck of the Ronald Reagan are silhouetted as the supercarrier sails into Hong Kong. Photo: Handout
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The now decommissioned Kitty Hawk is seen during a port visit to Hong Kong. Beijing denied the carrier entry to the city at the end of 2007 even after sailors’ spouses had flown in for Thanksgiving reunions. Photo: US Navy

Scenes of US warships cruising in Hong Kong waters have never been a rare sight, and the Ronald Reagan was in the city as recently as October 2017. Yet the port call this time has come as a surprise to many.

The fact that the US flattop could still sail into Hong Kong – whose defense and sovereignty are in Beijing’s purview – can be read as a sign of Beijing’s backing down at a time when China-US ties are apparently in choppy waters.

This is against the backdrop that saw Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Mike Pence spar over trade and regional disputes in their speeches during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea last weekend.

In September, Beijing turned away the Wasp, when the US amphibious assault ship planned to head for Hong Kong for the replenishment of supplies. The John C Stennis and her flotilla have also been denied entry to Hong Kong a number of times as China protested the Pentagon’s freedom-of-navigation sailings in waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea.

Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump are expected to meet at the end of this month. Photo: Reuters

Observers have praised Beijing’s latest flexibility in the sphere of military diplomacy. A high-stakes talk between Xi and Donald Trump has been scheduled for the G20 summit in Buenos Aires at the end of this month.

As a goodwill gesture, in return, on Tuesday the Pentagon invited People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong Garrison Chief Commander Lieutenant General Tan Benhong to visit the Ronald Reagan. He was reportedly flown to the carrier aboard a US Air Force C-2 transportation plane from Hong Kong airport to the carrier while it was still en route to the city.

Tan and his aides watched aircraft including the F-18 Super Hornet fighters and E-2 Hawkeye early warning planes taking off from the Ronald Reagan‘s catapult pads.

The carrier can carry up to 90 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, and is able to simultaneously launch four F-18s on catapults.

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